Women's prayers answered

When you hear the same promises from leaders for years, or even decades, cynicism is inevitable. So I will forgive any readers who laugh when I predict there is going to be significant progress on one of the thorniest issues facing our community: the role of women in Orthodoxy. Still, my gut feeling is that, nearly 20 years after the report on Jewish women commissioned by Lord Sacks, something important is happening.

On Sunday, I was one of 100 people who attended what, at first glance, seemed like a regular Orthodox minyan in Golders Green. Men and women were separated by a thick, high mechitzah. The liturgy and tunes were familiar from any United Synagogue service. So were most of the participants.

But there were differences. The decorum was perfect; the singing unusually joyful and rousing. And parts of the service, such as Hallel and the reading of the Torah, were led by women.

This was the UK's first official "partnership minyan", an Orthodox service in which women conduct as much of the prayers as they are allowed to by halachah. While such services will never become mainstream, it was an important step. First, because expectations of female leadership in regular shuls will inevitably change as such sights become routine, particularly as members of at least two US synagogues are currently planning their own partnership minyanim.

More importantly, unlike in the past, participants did not feel the need to wait for the approval of UK rabbis. Having studied and travelled overseas, and having access to the internet, they know that "partnership minyanim" are well established in Jerusalem and New York, and are backed by reputable halachic authorities there. Without that hold over them, local rabbis have no way to stop the phenomenon.

Later, I attended the inaugural UK Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa) conference. The 200 participants - who included some of our leading Orthodox educators and lay leaders and cannot be dismissed as marginal - spoke passionately about their commitment to Torah, mitzvot and Orthodoxy, and their determination to participate more fully in shul life, ensure that their daughters are given a more ambitious Jewish education, and share more equally ritual life in the home.

Here, again, is a grassroots organisation that is fully committed to halachah, but does not seek the imprimatur of British institutions or rabbis, who are notoriously slow-moving. While some did caution that it was necessary to work within existing frameworks, it was clear that as a group, these sisters (and quite a few brothers) are going to do it for themselves.

Neither the partnership minyan nor Jofa appeared in a vacuum. Over the past few months, I believe Orthodox women have been energised by the JLC's Commission on Jewish Leadership and by the US's sudden decision to allow women to chair shuls, which made it clear that some objections to women's leadership are cultural and political rather than halachic. Several women's megillah readings, which began in private homes, have now moved into synagogues, and there is more demand for women's Simchat Torah dances, Shavuot learning and more meaningful celebrations of batmitzvahs. US Women, who work indefatigably behind the scenes, have organised several well-attended seminars on women's issues.

Together, these add up to significant momentum. The community is ripe for change. For many rabbis and others, this is scary, and the temptation may be to fight new initiatives. This would be a shame, as there is room for both right and left on the spectrum of Orthodoxy and both sides should respect, not undermine, each other.

But it would also, ultimately, be a losing battle. Completely fed up with decades of obstruction, my sense is, these ladies are not for turning.

Last updated: 10:45am, June 17 2013